by Richard Belfield
Virtually everyone in Faversham uses the Post Office. The staff are friendly, helpful and well known faces in the town. All that is about to come to an end.
The Post Office has franchised the contract to a company called ZCO Limited, a one man band based in Bolton, Lancashire, run by a man called Zubeir Patel. Mr Patel runs a sister company, Potent Solutions Limited and the two businesses operate several post office franchises.
Since the privatization mania of the 1980’s, the title of most incompetent company getting a fat government contract has been hotly contested. Though not as well as known or as big as many of the others, ZCO/Potent are well placed to compete for this illustrious title. All the key elements are there - an appalling record of broken promises, poor financial reporting and dismal performance.
The Post Office is one of the biggest suppliers of financial services in Britain so
if you are going to run a branch, the number one skill needed is the ability to count - monies in, monies out and make sure they add up.
Potent has an appalling record of financial mismanagement.
In 2014, it had to file amended accounts after Mr Patel overstated the company’s assets by £26,167. Having to file amended accounts is a rare occurrence. As the only director, Mr Patel signed the accounts as giving “a true and fair view of the state of affairs of the company.” The following year he was at it again. The accounts were late and companies house applied to strike the company off. The 2015 accounts were even worse than the previous year. This time, the company overstated its assets by £180,000. As the sole director, Mr Patel did not even know how much cash he had in the bank at the end of the year, overstating this by £6,580 and exaggerated the amount the company was owed by £37,000. Again, Mr Patel signed these off as “a true and fair view”.
These things matter. When it comes to the management of their personal finances, customers are entitled to know that the company they are dealing with can at least do some basic arithmetic.
The second most important skill to running a post office is to stay open six days a week. Last November, Potent got the franchise contract to run the Post Office in Sheerness. It closes later this month.
The national picture
The Communication Workers Union, which represents the staff, has been campaigning against the destruction of our local post offices. The figures are frightening.
Over the past five years the Post Office has announced the closure of 150 Crown Post Offices.
Last October, the Post Office announced the closure or franchising of a further 74 offices, meaning the “Crown” network of large high street branches has been cut by nearly two thirds since 2013. There are only four Crown post offices left in Kent, including Faversham and Sittingbourne. Both are about to become franchises. For long term employees like Mole Meade, who sits on the Communication Workers Union postal executive, the destruction of the Post Office is horrifying.
“I joined in 1972. I've been in the post office for 47 years. When I joined there were 1,800 Crown offices. If ZCO take all the offices over, by the end of November we're going to be down to 120 Crowns and the sad thing for people out of London is 38 of those will be within the M25.”
Earlier this year, MPs were told that the Post Office network is on the brink of collapse with more than 2,500 branches facing closure in the next year, with more than a fifth of sub-postmasters, who run the Post Office franchises across the UK, saying they will resign or downsize because of increasing financial pressures.
Famously, Mrs Thatcher refused to privatise the Post Office but her offspring are made of crueller stuff. The current government plans to end its subsidy of the Post Office network in two years’ time. What are already marginal businesses are likely to collapse.
The track record of privatization, so far, has been poor. The normal pattern is that existing staff, who are properly trained, experienced and relatively well paid are laid off to be replaced by half the number of staff on minimum wage, often with only basic training.
Two independent reports, the first by Consumer Focus (2012) and the second by Citizens Advice (2016), showed that franchising out post office services to WH “the worst retailer of the year” Smith had resulted in longer queuing and service times, worse customer service, poor access for the disabled, fewer staff and a reduced number of counter positions.
As the quality of the service goes down, fewer people use the post office and so the number of positions is reduced. As the footfall to the post office declines this has a negative effect on nearby businesses. The downward spiral is then difficult to stop.
“Footfall will still suffer,” warns Mole Meade: “You’ve got a government currently banging on about ‘Oh, we’ve got to do something about the high street’ and they’re the ones killing it off.”
Despite the lack of good news anywhere for consumers, the Post Office remains upbeat, with its motto “helping you get life’s important things done.”
Kent Online, ever eager to recycle a press release, proudly quoted Roger Gale, the Post Office’s network and sales director (not be be confused with the North Thanet MP of the same name) said: "We are making this change in order to maintain post office services in the centre of Faversham. There are unprecedented changes on our high streets and the needs of our customers are evolving too.” He added, “The branch is set to see its opening hours extended to include Saturday afternoons, providing more convenient access for our customers." Mr Gale is clearly on top of his job as our post office already opens on Saturday afternoons. He also claimed that there are plans to refurbish the branch next year after the new operator has settled in. Given the Post Office record to date, no one is betting on this.
Thankfully the readers of the Faversham Eye are a sophisticated bunch. For lovers of pure nonsense, here is the statement from the Post Office. It is suggested that readers cut it out and keep it to read when the queues are round the block at Christmas.
“As a commercial business the Post Office is driven also by its social purpose. As the hub of many towns and villages across the UK it understands the important role the local Post Office branch plays within communities, especially older and lonely people and more vulnerable members of society. For many, the Post Office remains an important source of their customers’ social interaction as well as providing important access to their essential needs. Postmasters up and down the country offer more than just a range of services, in many cases they are integral to their local community, making a meaningful impact to society.”
Faversham’s MP, Helen Whatley, a dog whistle loyal supporter of anything that comes out of Tory HQ, has so far been silent on this issue.
Mr Patel’s last registered service address at companies house is a seven bedroom, six bathroom detached mansion on the outskirts of Bolton.